Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Mother Goes to College

Both my parents came from working class families filled with mostly skilled laborers and artists, where going to college was unusual.  I had always planned to go to college for as long as I can remember, originally planning to attend an Ivy League school and become a doctor, and my parents had been supportive of my ambitions.  One of my cousins started taking a sign language interpretation course so that she could hopefully pay rent while looking for work as an actress.  As I got closer to graduating high school, my mother tried to convince me to do the same.  I could continue living at home and attend a local community college to become a sign language interpreter too and then, she said, I could finance my own four-year degree after that.  This had never been my plan -- neither the extra two years of school nor staying in the same state as my parents -- and I refused. 

When I solidified my college plans and got ready to move out, my mother decided she would go to college too.  She would attend the local community college and become a sign language interpreter.  I thought this was a fantastic idea.  While my older brother, Dante, was still living at home when he hadn't recently been kicked out again by one of our parents, he was no longer treated like a child and my mother seemed to be going through empty nest anxiety.  Second, she had a history of taking jobs for which she was both overqualified and ill suited -- fast food service, warehouse temp work, the paper route -- often followed by getting injured in some way or doing something else that would abruptly end the job.  Finally she was aspiring to a job that required her to become more qualified and might hold her interest too.

My mother was very nervous about the community college entrance exam.  She was a perfectionist.  She told me that, in high school, she had taken remedial classes whenever possible so that she could be the best in the class.  The community college entrance exam covered two years worth of math she hadn't taken.  In preparation for the exam, she bought some geometry and trigonometry flashcards, and I taught the subjects to her.  It was unexpectedly easy.  She understood most concepts without my having to explain them twice.  She was obviously smart -- even at math, which I consider hard -- but she demurred and gave all the credit to my teaching.  She'd never believed she was smart and certainly never expected to go to college.  I understand the second part -- neither of her parents finished high school, they were poor, and she was a girl in the '60s -- but I don't know why they didn't tell her she was smart.  She always told me I was smart, and it is the one thing I never doubt about myself.

She had to write an entrance essay too.  It was riddled with unnecessary commas and all the same cliches she used when she spoke.  In fact, it sounded exactly like how she talked.  If she'd been writing as a character, it would have been fantastic.  Her style required a bit of tweaking and editing for an academic setting, but she was a good writer.  She didn't believe me.

She was afraid the other students would make fun of her.  She was an old, fat lady, she said.  She was self-conscious about her appearance, her eyebrows.  I reassured her and taught her to apply makeup.  First she seemed happy and calmer; when it came time to visit the school, she said it looked ridiculous.

Finally the summer ended and we both started classes.  She made two new friends, one my age and one a little older than Dante.  I was homesick, halfway across the country from anyone I knew, so I called home a lot.  My mother got angrier.  "I let you go to that school because I thought it would make you happy!"  "All you ever do is talk about yourself!"  Aside from the homesickness, I was actually happier.  School was hard, and I had to make all new friends, but having access to healthy food whenever I wanted it, walking outside without anyone stopping me, and living in a clean space with friendly people had a positive effect on me.  Colors looked brighter.  It was literally like a grey veil was lifting.  I was just experiencing new stressors and missed my mother.

She upset one of her new friends by saying her 4-year-old daughter was so fat she looked nine months pregnant.  She didn't understand why her friend was upset.  "It's true!" she insisted.  This was her standard defense when someone became upset at her insults.  Her other friend got married and adopted a toddler.  She told me about each of her friends' marital and sexual problems.  She recounted the stupid decisions they made and how each of them was better and kinder to her than me.  I don't know if her insults were becoming less subtle or if I was becoming more attuned to them. 

Near the end of her two-year degree program, my mother's anxiety attacks reached an apex.  With less than a semester left, she dropped out of her classes.  I couldn't convince her to stick it out.

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